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Midnight Awakening (Chapter Thirty-four)

They'd been scouring the steep, jagged crag for some hours and still no trace of the crypt. Night was starting to fade. None of the warriors scaling the rocks had any real affection for the sun–particularly Dante, after a nasty UV tangle a few months ago–but as later generation Breed, they could each withstand daylight for a short amount of time. With the aid of their solar- protection gear, they might be able to double that exposure.

But not so for the Ancient they hunted now. If the Gen One offspring of that alien being began to blister and burn in under ten minutes, the Ancient's UV-allergic skin and eyes would incinerate in seconds. That made for a decent backup plan, if the Order somehow failed to take the creature's head. Assuming they could even find the suckhead's hiding place amid all this inhospitable rock.

Dante shot an assessing glance up at the sky. If we don't get a hit on something in the next half hour or so, we'd better start heading back down.

Chase nodded. He stood beside Dante in the mouth of a shallow cave that had yielded nothing but some discarded beer bottles and the days-old remnants of an extinguished campfire. Maybe we're off somehow. Some of us could branch out along the farther ridge and check closer to the summit.

It's got to be here, Dante said. You saw the tapestry. That range Kassia sewed into the design is this one, right where we're standing. We're close, I'm telling you–

Hey, D. Nikolai was perched on a rocky promontory several yards above the mouth of the cave. Rio and Reichen just found another opening up here. It's pretty tight, but it goes deep into the mountain. You might wanna have a look.

Dante and Chase made a quick scramble up to where the others had gathered. The mouth of the cave–if you could even call it that–was a vertical slit in the rock. Small enough to be concealed unless you were right on top of it, yet wide enough for a man to sidle through with care.

Chisel marks, Dante observed, running his hand along the edge of the opening. Based on the weathering, they've been here for a while. This could be the place.

Six sober gazes held his as he drew the sword he carried and quietly gave the operation's commands. He would go in first, see how far the opening went and if there was anything on the other side. The others would wait for his orders– two on guard outside the mouth of the cave, and the rest ready to move in behind him on his signal if they had in fact found the crypt.

He squeezed between the vertical plates of rock, his head turned toward the pitch blackness ahead of him. The smell of bat dung and mold offended his senses the deeper he crept inside. The air in here was cold, damp. There was no sound at all, only the soft scrape of his movement as he progressed.

Somewhere along the way, he noticed that the crush of stone was easing. The walls began to widen incrementally, then, at last, they opened up onto a cavernous space deep within the mountain.

Dante stepped on something that crunched beneath his boot.

His eyes were keenest in the dark, and what he saw made the blood drain from his head.

Holy hell.

They'd found Dragos's secret. No doubt about it. Dante was standing in the middle of the Ancient's hibernation chamber, a crypt carved into the side of a mountain, just like Kassia's tapestry had said it would be.

Dante didn't recall speaking–hell, he wasn't even sure he was drawing breath in that moment–but within moments he was joined by his brethren.

Jesus Christ, one of them murmured, hardly audible.

Rio's whispered prayer in Spanish spoke for everyone: God help us all.

Tegan lifted his head, turning a fleeting, uncertain gaze up to the broken skylights above their heads.

Fuck. He didn't dare look long. Even dawn's early, filtered wash of light was like acid pouring over his retinas. Lucan was feeling the effects too. He took a hit in the thigh, the remaining Minion's shot driving him down to the floor. As a Gen One vampire, he could absorb more damage than others of their race, and he had, his body expelling the rounds he hadn't been able to dodge, the wounds bleeding but already beginning to heal over.

But he was under the open ceiling now, and thin tendrils of smoke began to rise up off his exposed skin. He bellowed, transforming in his rage. His lips peeled back as his fangs ripped out of his gums and his eyes went bright amber.

The Minion started to retreat now, realizing what he was up against. Lucan rolled out of the light and pulled the trigger of his 9mm. A single shot rang out. The Minion dropped, but he wasn't dead yet. Lucan squeezed off another round, finishing the bastard.

Then, silence.

The hollow click of an empty cartridge.

At the same time, Tegan's own Gen One abilities were slowly coming back to life. But he couldn't yet physically break the bonds that held him. He wasn't at all sure he should. The Crimson he'd been made to ingest was thrumming through every cell in his body, corrupting him like the poison it was.

He felt his Bloodlust rising, compelling him to feed the thirst that wanted to rule him.

He snarled as Elise came over to him and tried to work one of his manacles free. Get away, damn it! I don't want you here. Get out of here while you still can.

She kept tugging on the cuff, ignoring him completely. There's got to be a way to get these off you. He saw her eyes sweep the room, searching for a tool. Elise, goddamn it!

She scurried over to one of the dead Minions and pulled the semiauto out from under the heavy bulk of the body. Take this, she ordered him, slapping the weapon into his free hand. Shoot the chains, Tegan. Do it now!

He hesitated, and she made a hasty grab for the gun.

Damn it, if you don't, I will!

She didn't have the chance. The gun clattered to the floor, and, in a blur of movement, Elise was yanked off her feet by invisible hands and thrown several yards away. She crashed down, landing hard in the litter of broken glass. The scent of heather and roses swamped the room.

Marek stood in the open doorway, a sword in one hand, his other raised and pointed in Elise's direction, holding her there with the power of his mind. His mental grasp closed around her throat, cutting off precious air. She choked and clawed at the tight band of energy that was strangling her.

She bleeds, warrior, he taunted Tegan. And how your Rogue eyes thirst for it.

Lucan drew a blade from his hip and sent it flying. In that instant, Marek's focus switched, flicking to the airborne dagger and deflecting it with a thought. Undaunted, Marek strode forward, chuckling as he came up on Lucan's bloodied, UV- scorched face. Ah, my brother. Your death will be particularly sweet after all these years of waiting. I only wish you could live to see my rule come to pass before we say good-bye.

Marek raised his sword and swung it hard. Lucan rolled at the last second, leaving only hard wood planks in the way of his brother's weapon. The blade bit deep into the floor, momentarily frozen there. In a flash of movement, Lucan was up on his feet. He grabbed the nearest thing he could find–his hands closing on a length of copper utility pipe that ran up the wall. He wrenched it loose. Water spurted from the severed connection like a small fountain.

Lucan! Tegan called out as Marek yanked his sword free and spun to bring it down on his brother.

Lucan met the blow, blocking the downward arc with the long tube of copper. It bent under the strain, but Lucan held fast, fury blazing in his amber eyes. Marek's dark glasses were knocked askew in the scuffle, revealing still more amber as brother met brother in a murderous bid for control. Marek tried to drive the sword harder, leaning into the blade with all the considerable strength of his right arm. Lucan didn't give an inch. The two Gen One warriors grunted as they held each other at an impasse.

Above them, the sky was growing brighter, hotter, singeing both where the light touched open skin.

Released of Marek's hold, Elise coughed and gasped, struggling to breathe. Her pain lanced across Tegan like a physical blow. And the sight of her bleeding–the bright red lacerations on her hands, on her face–sent a jolt of adrenaline arrowing through Tegan's veins. He ripped his other arm loose of its bonds, roaring up into the rafters.

And across the space from him, Marek and Lucan's stalemate was taking a treacherous turn. It happened in an instant, Marek's hissed oath was vicious, the only hint of what was to come. Bearing down on Lucan with his right arm, he reached into his shirt with his free hand and withdrew a small vial of red powder. With a quick slash of his wrist, the Crimson flew at Lucan's face, coating his eyes and cheeks in the fine dust. He lost his hold on the pipe.

Ah, Christ.

Lucan.

Marek drew back with a smile as his brother heaved forward. He raised the sword high above his head. And as he began to swing it down, a sudden flash of light cut across Marek's face, hovering in his eyes. It was piercingly bright, the sun reflected in a powerful ray that burned Marek's eyes and nearly blinded Tegan where he stood.

He averted his gaze and found Elise on her knees in the broken glass. In her hands was a large shard, which she held steady and unflinching, throwing the light in a deliberate beam into Marek's face.

It was all the chance Tegan needed.

Crossing the room in long strides, he swung the chains that hung from his wrists. He caught Marek around the neck with one, coiling the thick links and wrenching the vampire off his feet. The other snaked around his sword arm, losing Marek his weapon. Marek fought Tegan with his mind, but every attempt was blocked by Tegan's rage. He pinned the bastard under his foot, ignoring the sudden pleas for mercy and forgiveness.

It ends here, Tegan snarled. You end here.

Tegan unslung the chains from Marek's arm and reached down to retrieve the sword. He saw Lucan's somber nod as he raised the blade over Marek's neck. Marek howled a curse, then fell silent as Tegan brought the sword down in a swift, lethal swing.

Tegan! Elise cried, racing over to him as soon as it was over. She threw her arms around him, helping to unwind his chains from Marek's lifeless body. She was at Lucan's side next, helping Tegan to move him into a shaded corner of the room.

Tegan saw her glance anxiously up at the open ceiling. Come on. We have to get you both out of here right away.

She led them down the stairs, then disappeared into one of the bedrooms. She came out carrying a large duvet and a thick wool blanket. Take these, she said, helping to drape the shrouds over both of them. Stay under there. I'll help you out of the house and into the car.

Neither of the two warriors had any argument. They let this petite female–Tegan's mate, he thought with a swelling surge of pride– guide them into full-on daylight, then into the back of Reichen's car.

Keep your heads down and stay covered, Elise ordered them. She closed the back door, then ran around to the driver's seat and hopped in. The engine fired up, tires squealing a bit as she hit the gas. I'm getting us the hell out of here.

And, by God, so she did.

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